Mark C. Mattes’ The Role of Justification in Contemporary Theology

[1] Mattes offers a well-written and well-organized examination of the use of the Lutheran doctrine of justification in the work of five contemporary Protestant theologians. The reader who approaches Mattes’s work from a non-Lutheran theological background will find the work rewarding because the issues which Mattes addresses are universally relevant to the present concerns of theology. Is the task of theology that of systematically integrating with the scientific thought of the modern academy or rather is it to serve a role auxiliary to evangelical proclamation? What place does the maintenance of traditional doctrines have in either of these tasks? Mattes’s reader may find it advantageous to have some familiarity with both Luther’s theology of justification and with the work of the contemporary theologians whom Mattes examines. Likewise, a familiarity with the theological elements pertinent to the Lutheran doctrine of justification is expected, e.g. understanding (a) the priority of the doctrine of justification, (b) the centrality of the doctrine of justification for Lutheran theology (according to Mattes, justification “affects all aspects of doctrine and life” [4]), (c) the Lutheran doctrine of the relation between law and Gospel, i.e. simul iustus et peccator (Mattes: “the distinction between law and gospel subverts system” [11]), (d) the distinction between coram deo and coram mundo, (e) the contrast between God as revealed through Jesus Christ and the hidden God, deus absconditus, and lastly, (f) the importance of ‘the promise’ as a hermeneutical key to the doctrine of justification. Yet even without such a familiarity, Mattes supplies the reader with a summary of Luther’s views (16) and with enough textual clues to assist the uninformed reader in a sufficient manner.

[2] Mattes is concerned with what he calls a “misalignment” (4) between the first-level discourse that is the pastoral proclamation of the Gospel and the second level discourse that is academic reflection. He writes that “we need to question the artificiality of the distinction between first- and second-order discourse…. The quest of second-order discourse is to situate a place or role for theology in the academy. As such, theology is evaluated on the basis of its ability to achieve some good in the academy” (177). A reader may ask: Is not a distinction between first and second order discourse required? Mattes thinks not. According to Mattes, if the quest of the systematic theologian is successful, “theology might be legitimated as a valid discipline in the university and be deemed socially relevant…. The only standards to which it seems that she can appeal are those of the academy itself” (178). A reader may ask: Is theology not a valid discipline in the university? If theology is valid, Mattes is concerned that theology will be forced to conform to academic standards that are “structured in Weberian terms as having the goal of distinguishing facts from values” (17; cf. 120). Mattes states that in the essay ‘Science as Vocation’ that Weber describes “the ‘scientific’ vocation of the university” as that in which “one can, in principle, master all things by calculation” (38). Among the five theologians whom he examines, Mattes states that Pannenberg exemplifies one such theologian who accepts such a fact-value distinction. Pannenberg, according to Mattes, aligns theology with fact and thereby finds common ground with academic scientific truth models (72). A reader may ask: does not the proclamation of the Gospel regard events held in faith to be factual? But Mattes implies that an accommodation of the fact-value dichotomy of the academy ultimately results in a further privatization of religion (cf. Jüngel, who, according to Mattes, accepts the secular privatization of God consequent to the fact-value split [54]). Against such accommodation, Mattes endorses Bayer, who teaches that “conflict, not accommodation, is constitutive for theology” (172). Rather than an academic study, Mattes states that “theology exists primarily for pastoral discernment” (11). For Mattes, such discernment must be regulated by the doctrine of justification, which he calls the ‘discrimen’ of theology. Mattes defines a ‘discrimen’ as “a configuration of criteria that are organically related to one another as reciprocal co-efficients” (11).

[3] Mattes considers five theologians (Jüngel, Pannenberg, Moltmann, Jenson, and Bayer) and divides them into two primary categories: the first three theologians Mattes classifies as thinkers who accommodate the standards of modern academia and the last two theologians as thinkers who do not. Of the three theologians who accommodate the academy, Mattes holds that all are, in some fashion, indebted to Schleiermacher. Mattes associates Jüngel with Schleiermacher’s category of ‘feeling,’ Pannenberg with the category of ‘knowing,’ and Moltmann with the category of ‘doing’ (18). Mattes criticizes these accommodating theologians because they construe the theological task as “the quest for system” (3). Such a quest, according to Mattes, is an attempt to attain a ‘God’s eye view’ beyond the limits of the doctrine of justification (5). This situates “the gospel within overarching frameworks of psychology, metaphysics and ethics” (9). Against any approach that would place undue emphasis on psychology (Jüngel), metaphysics (Pannenberg), or ethics (Moltmann), Mattes holds “justification sola fide as the ‘basis’ and ‘boundary’ of theology” (145). He is concerned that if theology does not maintain the centrality of the doctrine of justification as a “hub” in theological discourse, theology will proceed to “be developed on the basis of other goals and agendas” (9). In order that this does not happen, Mattes affirms that “all systematic theological frameworks are subordinate to the doctrine of justification…. The doctrine of justification is the basis for theology” (5). Mattes’ concern is to preserve his tradition of theological reflection in the face of what he construes as aberrations deriving from the importation of various academic philosophies; such a concern is indeed noteworthy. But the question remains: what is the proper function of academic theology? It seems implicit in Mattes’ account that there can be no academic theology if academic theology entails accommodating the methods and presuppositions of the academy (i.e. the Weberian fact-value dichotomy).

[4] Since the doctrine of justification qua ‘discrimen’ is “a configuration of criteria that are organically related to one another” (11), Mattes asserts that truth is not to be discerned as the logical coherence of a system of metaphysical or ethical propositions (7). Paraphrasing Bayer (the only theologian whom Mattes supports), Mattes states that, “the quest for ‘system’ is a hindrance to truth” (149). Rather, “justification is the lens through which all Christian truth must be presented” (180). Mattes explains: “The doctrine of justification thwarts the systematician’s tendency to seek an encyclopedic, ‘God’s eye’ view of all reality, from the most trivial puff of experience in far-flung space to God’s very being itself, because when Luther’s thinking is taken seriously, it subverts the tendency to unify all experience by means of making the finite infinite or the infinite finite” (148). In regard to a systematic theology founded upon ‘knowing’ (Pannenberg) or ‘doing’ (Moltmann), Mattes writes that, “justification is corrosive to system building, as either theoria or praxis…. The attempt to position justification within a comprehensive theory is not successful” (177). This corrosiveness seemingly derives from the fact that, for Mattes, there are aspects of Luther that cannot be systematized by an “overarching structure of practical or theoretical reason,” e.g. (a) the “law as accusing,” (b) the “Gospel as promising,” (c) “hiddenness as terrifying” (in relation to the deus absconditus), and (d) “providence as conserving” (149). Mattes explains that “with these four factors in play, one must walk by faith and not by sight in relation to God because they will never be harmonizable into a single, unified grand theory of the universe this side of the eschaton” (149). For Mattes, the attempt to utilize metaphysics in order to construct an intellectual frame for a “unified Christendom” in the face of secularism and nihilism is not as important as delivering “God’s gifts of forgiveness of sins” (13). In regard to the intellectual temptation of metaphysical systemization, Mattes writes: “We want more. Ultimately, we want an assurance derived from elsewhere than faith…. The Gospel is enough” (15).

[5] Throughout his work, Mattes especially discusses the problems he discerns with an appropriation of metaphysics in theology. Mattes sees little use for metaphysics in the theological task: “Metaphysics offers no neutral turf on which to do theology” (181). One may be inclined to think that Mattes confines his criticism of metaphysical systemization to an appropriation of modern metaphysical thought (e.g. Hegel). Indeed, Mattes often criticizes the Hegelianism implicit in different theologians (re: 73). In this view, God is not yet fully God. According to Mattes, Jüngel endorses such a mutability of God. Jüngel criticizes ancient metaphysics and maintains that an Aristotelian metaphysics of substance is insufficient (27). Jüngel affirms instead a metaphysics of subjectivity (28). Mattes states that Jüngel “ontologizes justification” by following a Hegelian and Heideggerian social ontology (31). He maintains a focal concern with a psychological ‘meta-experience’ (29). Such a focal concern Mattes considers as derivative from Schleiermacher’s emphasis upon feeling. In response, Mattes argues that, although one may be able to infer a human ontology from the doctrine of justification, the same inference is not appropriate for a divine ontology (54). Mattes states that Jenson is to be praised for his criticism of theologians such as Jüngel who reject Plato and Aristotle (144). In line with this, Mattes states that Jenson does not accommodate the modern academy (he does not allow “the fact-value split position in his theology” [144]). Rather, Mattes states that Jenson affirms a participatory reason akin to Neoplatonism and not an instrumental account of reason limited to measurement (19).

[6] Yet, even though Mattes praises Jenson for criticizing the modern academy’s rejection of Plato and Aristotle (144), Mattes, seemingly contradicting this affirmation, later extends his criticism of metaphysics to Plato and Aristotle as well. Mattes states that, “we should not seek to return to the pre-modern world” (189). Mattes argues that underlying Hegel, Kant and Schleiermacher and “their contemporary representatives” is Aristotle’s “monarchic” understanding of reason which “rules as king over all other aspects of human experience” (148). Likewise, he holds that, “embedded in the Kantian framework… is a deeply Platonic dimension that vestigially remains in and contours all of modernity. This Platonism favors the supersensual over the sensual” (150). Mattes concludes that “one must avoid all Platonically inspired notions of reason that situate it within an Augustinian and Anselmic ‘faith seeking understanding’ (fides quaerens intellectum) approach. Understanding offers one no ‘higher’ standing with respect to God than faith. It is faith that is pleasing to God” (155). A reader might ask: If one is to no longer maintain the Anselmian definition of theology as ‘faith seeking understanding,’ in what does the task of theology comprise? In what way does its task differ from that of catechesis? Likewise, a reader may ask: Does Mattes’ view of theology result in fideism? Mattes would respond in the negative. He defines fideism as “faith in faith itself” rather than as the belief that God can only be known to exist by faith, and not with the certainty of natural reason (10).

[7] Regarding his assessment of Jenson, Mattes states that Jenson also has “Hegelizing tendencies” (119). According to Mattes, Jenson promotes an account of participation which no longer involves merely an instantiation of an eternal Platonic Form in sensible temporal reality, but rather posits that participation is to be best understood as a vehicle for God’s divine life in order that it may undergo a process of self-development. Mattes criticizes Jenson (as he did Pannenberg [59]) for Jenson’s revision of the traditional view of forensic justification: “Justification is no longer primarily seen in forensic terms but rather in ontological terms” (118). Against the use of ontology in theology, Mattes asks: “Why do we need metaphysics? Talk of God is dependent on a concept of the world!” (75).

[8] In regard to Mattes’ consideration of the non-accommodating theologians, Mattes supports the theology of Bayer, whose work criticizes “the university’s Weberian tendency to dichotomize instrumental reason, with its bias toward subject matter amenable to measurement, and ‘values’ conceived as wholly subjective desires” (146). Likewise, in line with Mattes’ criticism of the use of metaphysics, Bayer is praiseworthy in that he “divests the doctrine of creation of a speculative, metaphysical aura” (161). Yet it is important to mention one potential problem in Mattes’ support of Bayer. Throughout the work, Mattes heavily criticizes the fact-value dichotomy that he discerns operative in academia. Mattes provides a footnote that mentions that he obtained the notion that the fact-value dichotomy originated with Max Weber from the work of Alasdair MacIntyre (17, fn. 37). In Mattes’ work, it is clear that he endorses Bayer. Bayer, in turn, follows Hamann. According to Mattes, Hamann joins Luther with Hume’s metaphysical skepticism (149) and employs such skepticism against Kant (150). Evocative of his statement against Platonic reason above, Mattes states that, “following Hume’s skepticism, the self is not to be construed as a supersensuous subjectivity, a Cartesian thinking thing…. Bayer accepts the human as deeply mortal, not gnostically divine” (161). Mattes affirms Bayer’s extension of Hamann’s metacritique of Kant to Hegel and Schleiermacher (157). Mattes explains that, upon following Hamann’s lead, “Bayer deftly takes on modernity, sharing in its assumptions, particularly the skepticism of George Berkeley and David Hume” (172). Mattes’ praise of Hume’s skepticism is compatible with Mattes’ criticism against any theology employing (a) a systematic metaphysics in accord with speculative reason (e.g. Pannenberg following Hegel) or (b) a systematic ethics in accord with practical reason (e.g. Moltmann following Marx). Mattes writes, “theology should not be about providing an overall system, but instead should deconstruct systems” (181). In such deconstruction, Mattes finds in Hume’s skepticism an ally against the claims of such academic theology.

[9] The potential problem arises from Mattes’ endorsement of Hume as a means by which to criticize metaphysical and/or ethical systematization. In Mattes’ account, such systematization is the product of any theologian attempting to accommodate the Weberrian fact-value dichotomy of the academy. Yet, although it may be true that Weber endorsed a fact-value dichotomy, it must be noted that the fact-value dichotomy itself originates with Hume (cf. A Treatise of Human Nature Book III, Pt. I, Sect. I). In some sense, therefore, when Mattes praises Bayer’s use of Hume against academia, Mattes is employing Hume’s skepticism against Hume’s skepticism. While ultimately the use of skepticism against skepticism may secure the account of theology sola fide, some thought must be given as to how far Hume’s skepticism can be affirmed and employed without undermining theology altogether, even when theology’s role is limited to functioning as an auxiliary to first-level discourse. This is because Hume’s skepticism was not limited merely to psychology or natural science, but extended as well to the scriptural accounts of Christ’s miracles (re: An Inquiry into Human Understanding Sect. X, Pt. II) and consequently to the credibility of the Gospel witnesses themselves (re: An Inquiry… Sect. X, Pt. I). Due to this, Hume seems an unlikely ally for Christian thought. Is it possible that Hume’s skepticism itself is symptomatic of what Mattes calls an ‘incurvation’ of human existence, an effect of human entropy that requires the healing and guidance of the grace given through justification (17)?

[10] In sum, Mattes’ work provides a criticism of the current landscape of Lutheran theology and touches on questions that have universal import. Regardless of whether the reader agrees with Mattes’ assessment, his work provides an interesting perspective which will enrich and help clarify the reader’s own views. As such, and due to the accessibility of the writing, Mattes’ work is worth examining.